Google did nothing wrong by collecting wifi data with the streetcar.

June 1st, 2010 at 12:41 pm

3033520.binCan somebody please explain what Google did wrong?

They drove around with a car, taking photos of the public surroundings of their car (that’s how they make StreetView).  While so doing, they picked up and recorded whatever wireless signals were coming in to their car.

Now people are whining that they are being spied upon.

Does anybody really think that preventing this kind of conduct has anything to do with making our communities secure against unwanted surveillance?  Is this line of defense the best we’ve got?

If you stand at your doorway, yelling at the top of your lungs about many intimate, private details of your life, is it fair to accuse a passerby of illegal (or unethical) surveillance because they happen to be recording their surroundings with an audio recorder?

Do you think that members of congress will rally to your defense, accusing those same pedestrians of spying on you?

There are plenty of very secure options for wireless communication.  If you aren’t using any of them, that’s your prerogative.  If you abstain from secure practices while at the same time communicating about sensitive issues which you bizarrely regard as private, that’s your problem.

On the bigger issue of Google being a scary monster of information collection… Sure, I see your point.  While on one hand, the information they collect is, in every practice I know of, voluntary (search phrases, email contents on Gmail, advertising clicks, cookies, the Google Toolbar, and many other methods), it’s not any less scary that they know more than anybody else about the modern polity.

I’m not usually a defender of google or any other giant corporation – I’ve expressed my fair share of google skepticism.  In this case, I think they’ve actually done wrong by repeatedly apologizing, but I guess that’s a PR move.

Nevertheless, their amazing (and thankless!) gift two weeks ago of releasing the VP8 codec to the public domain under an open source license was perhaps the single most significant act of bolstering independent radical journalism in the (still short) history of website-based video delivery.  Still not as profound as the movement that Miro represents, I’ll grant, but big (and a LOT more expensive).

To my mind, Google gave us as $124.6 million dollar gift, and I think we have a responsibility to accept it in full if we want to take advantage of it. That means in turn taking full responsibility for our network presence.  If your upload stream includes poignant, radical, inspirational content encoded in a free codec for the world to cherish, good.  If your upload stream (and wireless connection) includes unencrypted content that you irrationally regard as private, bad.

8 comments.


  1. You said: “the information they collect is voluntary, through search phrases, email contents on Gmail, advertising clicks, cookies, the Google Toolbar, and many other methods”

    You consider these voluntary? How many people are even aware of the various ways Google collects information about them? How many have given permission?

    Data collection should require ACTIVE permission, not a default of “it’s OK because you didn’t specifically forbid it.”


  2. Ummm, it does. You have to click “I Agree” to an End User License Agreement that spells it all out.

    If you don’t want to sign EULAs anymore, which is absolutely admirable, switch to free software and services.


  3. I think people have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If information is being gathered or intelligence a think a person needs to be inform. If Gooogle or Search Engines are gathering information on citizen or users, they need to get permission. It seems like we are getting to the point were their is not expectation of privacy anymore. Nevetheless, I can’t see Google being charge with spying.


  4. I have a serious problem with your argument for two reasons:

    1. I think it’s a bit presumptive of you to think that the average person has the time/technical know how to research and use these more secure sources of wireless communication. Unlike your weak analogy to someone shouting at the their doorway, people using cellphones or other wireless technology do expect a certain amount of privacy, it’s just a fact. The difference is that most people do not have the time to bother taking greater care of the information they distribute. Thus, it’s unfair to brand their activities as some sort of tacit acceptance of corporations like google collecting such information.

    2. Additionally, your comment above about people “agreeing” to having their information distributed because they click on a license agreement? That’s ridiculous. No one actually reads those. Firstly, they are adhesion contracts – no one actually gets to negotiate with Google about their terms of use. You either accept their unfair terms or be forced to use other, less prevalent methods. Is that fair? Certainly not.


  5. Andy: Cry me a river.

    1. It’s presumptive of me? Well, yes, I presume that in a free society, people who want to be free and prosperous will also be vigilant. If they don’t know or care not to put information that they regard as private into a public space so that others can glean and record it, I have no sympathy for them. And yes, I do brand their unwillingness to take 5 minutes to read a quick and general (non-technical) guide on wireless security as tacit acceptance of whatever may happen as the result of their laziness. And that’s what it is: laziness.

    2. So if people don’t read EULAs, which I agree they don’t – what do you suggest as a remedy? I advocate the use of free software. I don’t like to sign EULAs any more than anybody, but if I do, I’m not going to then claim that I’m not responsible for my actions because I didn’t feel like reading the EULA that day.

    Your justifications (rationalizations?) are exactly the same as those used to justify / rationalize the nanny state / police state atmosphere.


  6. If my “rationalizations” are the same used to justify the “nanny state” then yours are the same used to justify unregulated, unfettered capitalism. This is the fallacy of libertarianism, that people and the institutions they deal with are on equal bargaining levels. Where does your argument end? Maybe if people weren’t so “lazy” we wouldn’t need the FDA to tell us what can and can’t be put in the food we eat? Surely in the age of the Internet, people can research what is in the food products they consume and choose not to consume the products that are unhealthy for them? Surely if people weren’t so lazy they could take 10 minutes out of their busy work schedules and trying to raise a family to read about the hazards of trans fats. I’d like to know if you see a principled distinction between this case and the FDA example. And what about the advertising on television? Surely if people weren’t so lazy they could research the claims made by advertisers to make sure they weren’t false. Then we wouldn’t need the pesky FTC telling businesses that they can’t distort facts in advertising.

    My point is that consumer protection is a valuable and important function that government can serve. And this is another example where consumer protection is important.


  7. You have accurately predicted and poignantly laid out the reasons why I believe that, over time, agencies like the FDA and FTC are becoming less, rather than more, needed.


  8. If only you had a time machine, you could go back to the 1880s before all those pesky government regulations were created. If you do find one, make sure to take that evil nut job Ron Paul with you.

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